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Obituary: Alec Gillies (1957-2015)

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Bob Wallbridge pays tribute to the ‘truly great’ Hampshire County Council architect Alec Gillies who has died, aged 58, after a short and sudden illness

Alec was an immensely creative and talented designer who championed the value of architecture for public good.

He joined Hampshire County Council’s Architects in 1998, a uniquely placed public practice with an international reputation for school design. Alec was a profound but modest man whose architecture brought delight and brightened peoples’ lives. He would often quote Charles and Ray Eames, and he lived his life doing his best for the most with the least.

Alec studied Architecture in the 1980s at Newcastle University and in London at the University of Westminster. He worked at Edward Cullinan Architects for seven years from 1987 to 1994.

There he worked on the RMC International HQ, Surrey, recently listed, and was project architect for Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre, Yorkshire, playing a pivotal role in its success.

On hearing of Alec’s death, Ted Cullinan said: ‘Without Alec the visitors’ centre at Fountains Abbey would only have been half as good as it finally was. His contribution to the work in this office was truly great and he will be remembered forever.’

Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre - Ted Cullinan Architects

After a short venture into public practice at Bradford City Architects, Alec worked as a senior associate with David Chipperfield for two years in the mid 1990s.

Most significantly at that time he was project architect for the River and Rowing Museum at Henley. He then moved to Hereford, spending a year at Jamieson Associates, and finally joined Hampshire County Council.

Alec launched himself into the design of schools. They were all to be award-winning projects, each a triumph of architecture, displaying profoundly good judgement, ultimately leading to Hampshire being nominated and shortlisted for RIBA Client of the Year. Alec continued the exceptional work of Colin Stansfield Smith and Hampshire County Council’s Architects Department with me for 17 years.

Great Binfields Primary School was his first new school, designed in 1999, nestled into an ancient woodland. It was notably an early sustainable school. Then came the remodelling of Burnham Copse Primary School, an exemplar of reuse, or as Alec would describe it, a ‘long life, loose fit’ design. After this came Forest Park Special School, a new school built for children with multiple and profound learning difficulties. Alec’s response was as always to ensure the architecture was uplifting, delightful, purposeful, poetic and of its place. In his career Alec also oversaw numerous other school projects designed by colleagues in the office. Most recently he created a, yet to be published, ‘all-through school’ campus at Westgate in Winchester.

Alongside the schools, there were designs for other key public buildings across Hampshire, including Gosport and then Alton Library. Again it won an RIBA award, attracting interest in the national press and enchanting Jonathan Glancey, architectural critic for the Guardian at the time, who published an article commending Alec’s architecture, entitled Sense and Sensitivity’. Books were dear to Alec’s heart and the developing library programme included Alec’s wonderful tour de force, the Winchester Discovery Centre (completed 2007).

Here Alec worked with a Grade II-listed Corn Exchange, transforming a tired 1970s library conversion, and extending it in an uncompromisingly modern way to create a new and dynamic discovery centre and gallery in the heart of historic Winchester.

I like to think Alec found his architectural home with us in Hampshire. Our work is all about that generosity of public practice, making world class architecture and spaces for everyone, and a shared belief that making the ordinary extraordinary can transform people’s lives.

Alec was always kind and considerate, willing to share his thoughts with those who wanted to listen, and there were many. He tutored students in design at the Royal College of Art, Sheffield University and Cardiff University, lectured at the University of Portsmouth and collaborated with artists.

Alec was a truly great architect and a good and generous man. I do firmly believe Alec will live on through his architecture and through all of his many colleagues. We count ourselves very lucky to have had such wonderful times with Alec as a fellow architect and personal friend.

Bob Wallbridge is strategic manager of design & implementation at Hampshire County Council


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